QCryptoX: post-mortem

Our EdX/Delft/Caltech course on quantum cryptography officially ended on Dec. 20th, and is now archived (all material should remain available in the foreseeable future; we will also prepare a self-contained version of the lecture notes). At Caltech, the “flipped classroom” ended a couple weeks earlier; by now all grades are in and the students may even be beginning to recover. How did it go?

1. In the classroom

Fifteen Caltech students, with a roughly equal mix of physics/CS/EE backgrounds, followed the course till the end (we started at ~20). We had a great time, but integration with the online course proved more challenging than I anticipated. Let me say why, in the hope that my experience could be useful to others (including myself, if I repeat the course).

The EdX content was released in 10 weekly updates, on Tuesdays. Since on-campus classes took place Tuesdays and Thursdays, I asked Caltech students to review the material (videos+lecture notes+quizzes) made available online on a given Tuesday by the following Tuesday’s class. I would then be able to structure the class under the assumption that the students had at least some minimal familiarity with the weeks’ concepts. This would allow for a more relaxed, “conversational” mode: I would be able to react to difficulties encountered by the students, and engage them in the exploration of more advanced topics. That was the theory. Some of it worked out, but not quite as well as I had hoped, and this for a variety of reasons:

  1. There was a large discrepancy in the students’ level of preparation. Some had gone through lecture notes in detail, watched all videos, and completed all quizzes. Although some aspects of the week’s material might still puzzle them, they had a good understanding of the basics. But other students had barely pulled up the website, so that they didn’t even really know what topics were covered in a given week. This meant that, if I worked under the assumption that students already had a reasonable grasp of the material, I would loose half the class; whereas if I assumed they had not seen it at all I would put half the class to sleep. As an attempted remedy I enforced some minimal familiarity with the online content by requiring that weekly EdX quizzes be turned in each Tuesday before class. But these quizzes were not hard, and the students could (and did) get away with a very quick scan through the material.
  2. As all students, but, I hear, even more so here, Caltech undergraduates generally (i) do not show up in class, and (ii) if per chance they happen to land in the right classroom, they certainly won’t participate. In an attempt to encourage attendance  I made homeworks due right before the Tuesday 10:30am class, the idea being that students would probably turn in homeworks at the last minute, but then they would at least be ready for class. Bad idea: as a result, students ended up spending the night on the homework, dropping it off at 10:29:59… only to skip class so as to catch up on sleep!Slightly over half of the registered students attended any given class, a small group of 8-10 on average. This made it harder to keep participation up. On the whole it still went pretty well, and with a little patience, and insistence, I think I eventually managed to instore a reasonably relaxed atmosphere, where students would naturally raise questions, submit suggestions, etc. But we did not reach the stage of all-out participation I had envisioned.
  3. The material was not easy. This is partially a result of my inexperience in teaching quantum information; as all bad teachers do I had under-estimated the effort it takes to learn the basis of kets, bras and other “elementary” manipulations, especially when one has but an introductory course in undergraduate linear algebra as background. Given this, I am truly amazed that the 15 students actually survived the class; they had to put in a lot of work. Lucky for me there are bright undergraduates around!We ended the course with projects, on which the students did amazingly well. In groups of 2-3 they read one or more papers in quantum cryptography, all on fairly advanced topics we had not covered in class (such as relativistic bit commitment, quantum homomorphic encryption, quantum bitcoin, and more!), wrote up a short survey paper outlining some criticisms and ideas they had about what they had read, and gave an invariably excellent course presentation. From my perspective, this was certainly a highlight of the course.

Given these observations on what went wrong (or at least sub-optimally), here are a few thoughts on how the course could be improved, mostly for my own benefit (I hope to put some of these to good practice in a year or two!). This should be obvious, but: the main hurdle in designing a “flipped classroom” is to figure out how to work with the online content:

  • First there is a scheduling difficulty. Some students complained that by having to go through the weekly videos and lecture notes prior to the discussion of the material in class they simultaneously had to face two weeks’ worth of content at any given time. Scheduling of online material was decided based on other constraints, and turned out to be highly sub-optimal: each week was released on a Tuesday, which was also the first day of class, so that it was unreasonable to ask the students to review the material before that week’s classes….pushing it to the next week, and resulting in the aforementioned overlap. A much better schedule would have been to e.g. release material online on Friday, and then have class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This would have led to a larger overlap and less schizophrenia.
  • Then comes the problem of “complementarity”. What can be done in class that does not replicate, but instead enriches, then online material? This is made all the more difficult by the inevitable heterogeneity in the student’s preparation. An effort has to be made to limit this by finding ways to enforce the student’s learning of the material. For instance, each class could be kick-started by a small presentation by one of the students, based on one of the online problems, or even by re-explaining (or, explaining better!) one of the week’s more challenging videos. This should be made in a way that the students find it valuable, both for the presenter and the listeners; I don’t want the outcome to be that no one shows up for class.
  • Student-led discussions usually work best. They love to expose their ideas to each other, and improve upon them. This forces them to be active, and creative. The best moments in the class where when the discussion really picked up and the students bounced suggestions off each other. The existence of the online material should facilitate this, by giving a common basis on which to base the discussion. My approach this time wasn’t optimal, but based on the experience I think it is possible to do something truly engaging. But it won’t work by itself; one really has to design incentive-based schemes to get the process going.

2. Online

Success of the online course is rather hard to judge. At the end of the course there were about 8000 officially registered students. Of these, EdX identified ~500 as “active learners” over the last few weeks (dropping from ~1500 over the first few weeks, as is to be expected). I think an active learner is roughly someone who has at least watched some parts of a video, answered a quizz or problem, participated in a forum, etc.
About 100 students pursued an official certificate, which means that they paid ~50$ to have their success in the course officially registered. I couldn’t figure out how many students have actually “passed” the class, but I expect the number to be around 200: most of the certified students plus a few others who didn’t want to pay for the certificate but still turned in most homeworks. This is a fair number for a challenging specialized course, I am pretty happy with it. The high initial enrollment numbers, together with anecdotal evidence from people who got in touch directly, indicate that there certainly is demand for the topic.  The most active students in the course definitely “wanted in”, and we had lots of good questions on the forum. And, many, many typos were fixed!

How satisfied were the students with the course? We ran an “exit survey”, but I don’t have the results yet; I can write about them later (hoping that a significant enough number of students bother to fill in the survey). We also had  pre- and mid-course survey. Some of the more interesting questions had to do with how students learn. In my opinion this is the main challenge in designing a MOOC: how to make it useful? Will the students learn anything by watching videos? Anecdotal evidence (but also serious research, I hear) suggests not. Reading the lecture notes? Maybe, but that requires time and dedication – basically, to be an assiduous learner already. Just as “in-the-classroom” learning, it is the problem-solving that students are brought to engage in that can make a difference. Students like to be challenged; they need to be given an active role. In the mid-course survey many of the positive comments had to do with “Julia lab” assignments that were part of the course, and for which the students had to do some simple coding that let them  experiment with properties of qubits, incompatible measurements, etc. In the pre-course survey students also indicated a marked preference for learning via solving problems rather than by watching videos.

So a good online MOOC should be one that actively engages the student’s problem-solving skills. But this is not easy! Much harder than recording a video in front of a tablet & webcam. Even though I was repeatedly told about it before-hand, I learned the lesson the hard way: homework questions have to be vetted very thoroughly. There is no end to a student’s creativity in misinterpreting a statement – let alone 1000 students’. Multiple-choice questions may sound straightforward, but they’re not: one has to be very careful that there is exactly one straight correct answer, while at the same time not making it too obvious which is that answer; when one has a solution in mind it is easy not to realize that other proposed supposedly wrong solutions could in fact be interpreted as correct. The topic of cryptography makes this particularly tricky: we want the students to reason, be creative, devise attacks, but the multiple-choice limits us in this ability. Luckily we had a very dedicated, and creative, team of TAs, both in Delft and In Caltech, and by working together they compiled quite a nice set of problems; I hope they get used and re-used.

3. Conclusions

It’s too early (or too late) for conclusions. This was a first, and I hope there’ll be a second. The medium is a challenge, but it’s worth reaching out: we teach elite topics to elite students at elite institutions, but so many more have the drive, interest, and ability to learn the material that it would be irresponsible to leave them out. MOOCs may not be the best way to expand the reach of our work, but it is one way…to be improved!

It was certainly a lot of fun. I owe a huge thank you to all the students, in the classroom and online, who suffered through the course. I hope you learned a lot! Second in line were the TAs, at Caltech as well as Delft, who did impressive work, coping simultaneously with the heavy online and offline duties. They came up with a great set of resources. Last but not least, behind the scenes, the video production and online learning teams, from Delt and Caltech, without whose support none of this would have been made possible. Thanks!

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